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Is That Coal on the Beach?

Chunks of coal and black powdery material washed up along the Caledonia shoreline. The DNR says coal may have fallen off a barge years ago and the black powdery stuff is magnetite, not coal ash.

A resident living just south of We Energies' Oak Creek power plant says she has been seeing quite a bit of what she believes is coal ash as well as chunks of coal washing up along the shores of Lake Michigan.

The chunks of coal were wedged between the rocks on the beach, but there was also a powdery metallic substance in the sand.

But an official with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources says the powdery stuff on the shore probably is not coal ash, which contains arsenic, lead, mercury and other chemicals and has been linked to cancer. The coal on the beach, however, is indeed coal.

After the We Energies bluff collapse in 2011, the company dredged the water to remove as much of the coal ash as they could and then they dumped it into a nearby landfill. But now chunks of coal and what Caledonia resident Maurenn Michna says is coal ash have washed up along the shoreline. She used a metal detector to check out the material, Michna said, and found it contained metals.

"We used a metal detector and scooped up some of the black sand near the water. ... You can see the coal ash and the metal shavings, but they are saying it’s not metals, and it's all up and down the beaches," Michna said.

But Eric Nitschke, southeast regional director for the DNR, said the coal may have fallen off of a barge years ago.

"There were coal barges that carried quite a bit of coal through this area at one time because it used to be one of the shipping lanes," Nitschke said. "We can't speculate on how it got (on the beach), but we're making sure that it's not a health hazard."

Rather than coal, Nitschke said the black material is likely magnetite, a naturally occurring metal. The DNR will run further lab tests on the substance, Nitschke said.

We Energies spokesman Brian Manthey said:

The DNR was out there recently in response to a similar request from the residents in the area...If the material is consistent with what we have observed and have tested in the past, it is not coal ash. Because it is highly magnetic, it is even more of an indication that it is not coal ash.

In one instance last year, the EPA and us analyzed similar samples that were found further south. They reached the same conclusion that we did. It was not coal ash. In fact, we took samples of similar material to the north of the plant (Bender Park) and it was consistent with what was found on the beach. The samples were taken north of the plant because that would be the best indicator of lake background vs. possible plant impact.

Manthey said in November 2011 that the landfill the coal ash is going into has a clay liner on the bottom. Above that is a drain tile system, which consists of a gravel and sand mixture. Then there's the coal ash.

When water lands on the landfill, it goes through the leachate system and into a holding tank. Then it's taken by truck to their wastewater treatment system.

Environmental groups have raised concerns about coal ash since it contains arsenic, lead, mercury, cadmium, chromium and selenium, which are "known to cause cancer and neurological damage in humans. They can also harm and kill wildlife, especially fish and other water-dwelling species." And if inhaled, some of the "forms of recycling may endanger human health from airborne particles, even where no water is involved," Harvard professor Barbara Gottlieb said in a report.

We Energies officials have disputed those claims in the past. Cathy Schulze, a spokeswoman for We Energies, said in a prior interview that coal ash is not a toxic substance, and it isn't listed as a toxic substance by the EPA.

"We even recycle 100 percent of the coal ash we produce," she said.

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